Shema Yisrael

A couple years ago we and our Can We Talk? partners, the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Community Relations Council, devoted an installment of the program to the question of how we as a Jewish community can constructively talk about Israel.

As Jews enter this High Holiday season, however, the scariest prospect is that we avoid talking about it at all. Even though, of course, we must.

An article in the New York Times this week addressed the difficulties that congregations across America are facing in having dialogue about the Jewish State. And rabbis are feeling pressure in some synagogues to either not talk about Israel at all, lest their opinions be adjudged inappropriate, or to mask their true feelings and thoughts in fear of repercussions by key members.

The article by Laurie Goodstein pointed to pressure points that can cause board members or constituents to chastise their religious leaders. “If (rabbis) defend Israel, they risk alienating younger Jews who, rabbis say they have observed, are more detached from the Jewish State and organized Judaism. If they say anything critical of Israel, they risk angering the older, more conservative members who often are the larger donors and active volunteers.”

Flash points aren’t generally related to whether the State of Israel should exist, but rather, issues that pervade the public discussion about Israel’s policies or actions, as, for instance, the settlement activity in the West Bank or the scope of the nation’s response to Gaza rockets and tunnel attacks during Operation Protective Edge.

In one New York synagogue with a largely gay constituency, Goodstein wrote, the rabbi’s choice to pray for both Israeli soldiers and Gaza children who died in the conflict led to the resignation of a board member and several congregants. In a totally different vein, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Montreal talked about how Israel strove to conduct an ethical and just war in Gaza, after which a congregant who hadn’t even heard the sermon quit, saying there wasn’t room to critique Israel in the congregation.

These examples point to the vast amount of intolerance that seems to float through Jewish communities in North America these days when the Israel discussion comes to the forefront. With such rigidity comes a lack of respect for alternate viewpoints, which has as a natural consequence the tamping down of engaged discussion to understand and appreciate the thoughts and feelings of others.

This proves that we as Jews are hardly immune from the societal trends that are making American civil discourse harder and harder. People tune in to the news outlets with which they agree, and with their like-minded acquaintances parrot the condemnations of those with whom they disagree, secure in the belief that this comprises constructive dialogue.

It doesn’t, of course. Dialogue comprises a give and take, an attempt to understand, appreciate and discuss divergent viewpoints. While we certainly acknowledge there are limits of fair play, many of the topics that come up in synagogue or otherwise are well within the range of reasonable debate.

Being supportive or unsupportive of the settlements in the West Bank doesn’t define either a Jew in general or a pro-Israel Jew in particular. Having concerns about whether the Israeli Defense Forces acted in large part appropriately during the Gaza Conflict does not automatically sound an anti-Israel alarm. Being saddened and discouraged by loss of life, whether Israeli or Gazan, is part of the human, and some would say Jewish, condition.

Support for Israel’s existence, its right to security, and its place as a safe home for Jews, are ample common threads upon which to form the basis for civil engagement. The tactics by which these elements can be assured, however, are as debatable as any topic in our own American political quiltwork.

Israelis discuss these issues at the dinner table proudly, fiercely and ad nauseum. They have myriad opinions and they voice them, in both their casual conversations and in the halls of the Knesset. Why can’t our rabbis? Why can’t we?

We absolutely must. To remain silent from intimidation, especially from those in our own shuls, is not an option. If we cave on the critical point of actually having the key conversations that advance our thinking about Israel – in other words, if we leave Israel out of the equation of Jewish dialogue – then we’ve put our fears and our contempts ahead of our commonalities.

Those of us who believe that both the concept and physical State of Israel are indispensable to the survival and prosperity of the Jewish people, must have the internal fortitude to accept that Israel means different things to its myriad lovers. The strength we show by embracing the tough discussions will cement Israel in our future. To shy away from the tough talk will only make it recede into the distance.